• News

Soil Matters: Ikes Take Action to Restore Water Quality in the Upper Mississippi

Duane Hovorka, IWLA Agriculture Program Director
Outdoor America 2020 Issue 1
Farm runoff

Runoff of pesticides, fertilizer, soil, and manure from farms and livestock operations is the biggest threat today to the health of America’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands. That is especially true in the states of the Upper Mississippi River basin – the heart of America’s grain-producing region and the birthplace of the Izaak Walton League.

Together, seven states in the Upper Mississippi watershed – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin – grow over 70% of America’s corn and nearly 60% of U.S. soybeans. Those grains in turn produce 76% of America’s ethanol, 63% of our hogs, and nearly 25% of U.S. cattle.

Yet this large-scale agricultural production comes at a price. Rivers and lakes throughout the region are polluted by nitrogen, phosphorus, and pesticides running off cropland and by phosphorus and bacteria from livestock operations. Eroding farm soil has filled local reservoirs, and once-rich prairie soils have been degraded by decades of tilling and chemicals.

The Upper Mississippi basin supplies an inordinate share of the nitrogen and phosphorus that flow down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. These nutrients contribute to an oxygen-starved “dead zone” in the Gulf that covers thousands of square miles of water every summer.

States throughout the region are scrambling for solutions that will reduce polluted runoff from farms and livestock operations, and League staff and volunteers are working in many states and communities for solutions that will restore clean water and protect our soil.

Innovative State Solutions

Iowa: Tim Wagner, the League’s Agriculture Outreach Coordinator, has been educating policymakers in Iowa and Illinois about the seriousness of the pollution problem and opportunities to leverage federal Farm Bill conservation programs to deliver clean water solutions in their states. Wagner and Iowa Division Conservation Chair Mike Delaney organized a briefing for state legislators on soil health and water quality last year, which was attended by 14 legislators. Wagner and Delaney also helped organize a farm tour for U.S. Congresswoman Cindy Axne, during which farmer Seth Watkins showed how soil-health solutions can effectively protect water quality in Iowa’s rivers and wetlands.

The League continues to support efforts to fund Iowa’s Natural Resource & Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which would provide over $200 million per year for programs that help farmers adopt better farming practices, support state and local parks, and fund outdoor recreation programs. Iowans voted to approve the initiative that created the Trust Fund in 2010, but the state legislature has refused to enact the sales tax increase needed to fund it.

Illinois: Tim Wagner and Ikes from the Illinois Division asked legislators to increase funding to address nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and for county soil and water conservation districts that help farmers adopt conservation systems. The conservation district in Champaign County created a system that shows farmers how their conservation practices compare with available best practices. Now other soil and water conservation districts in Illinois are adopting this system for their use.

Other League members across Illinois have been active on agriculture issues. Walter Lynn organized film nights to educate farmers and other interested members of the community about soil health. Dean Farr attended federal agency meetings to propose a new cover crop initiative. The League asked state agencies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restore a multi-million-dollar Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program initiative that provides incentives for farmers to restore wetlands and install permanent buffer strips along Illinois streams.

Minnesota: The Minnesota Buffer Law, enacted in 2015 with support from the League’s Minnesota Division, requires landowners to plant grass buffer strips between their fields and the state’s streams and lakes to catch runoff before it reaches waterways. Minnesota provided financial assistance to help farmers plant the buffer strips, and over 98% of Minnesota’s streams and lakes now have buffers along them.

Nebraska: League members supported legislation last year that created a Healthy Soils Task Force to craft a comprehensive plan to improve the health of the state’s soils. Recent flooding in Nebraska and other states has increased interest in soil health solutions that can reduce runoff. The state’s soil health plan should be completed by the end of 2021.

Local Solutions

In addition to promoting good public policies, Ikes in the Upper Mississippi region are taking direct action in their communities.

In South Dakota, the McCook Lake Chapter used the federal Conservation Reserve Program to restore prairie grasses on a crop field, reducing soil erosion and creating habitat for deer, pheasants, butterflies, and other wildlife. The chapter also restored and protected a nearby wetland using a Farm Bill easement program. Both projects will have important water quality benefits for the area.

Iowa Ikes Ray and Sue Meylor created Cherry Glen Learning Farm near Polk City to teach people about sustainable ways to manage farmland and grow food. Their 10-acre farm has ponds that intercept runoff from neighboring farms and a housing development, using the fertilizer-laden water to grow fruits and vegetables. The Meylors are sharing their experience as a model that could be used by returning veterans and others to grow healthy food while cleaning up pollution in Iowa rivers and lakes.

The League’s Minnesota Division is leading a regional Upper Mississippi River Initiative (UMRI) to test innovative approaches to address water quality problems. Ikes used cutting-edge DNA testing to identify the source of E. coli in local rivers, which can come from livestock as well as people (through leaking septic systems) and wildlife. The results helped local policymakers and the public understand the solutions needed to reduce harmful bacteria in the watershed.

In other places, UMRI is helping farmers understand that efforts to quickly drain fields upstream can cause fields downstream to flood. The regional initiative also brought together League volunteers to monitor and conserve stretches of the Cedar River, which flows from southeastern Minnesota through Iowa and into the Mississippi River. League members are working directly with farmland owners on leases that provide for better conservation practices on land they rent out.

In the Upper Mississippi River basin, cleaner water in streams, lakes, and wetlands depends on the individual actions of farmers, livestock producers, suburban homeowners, golf courses and other landowners. The Izaak Walton League’s work at the national, state, local, and chapter levels is giving farmers, landowners, and communities the tools they need to restore healthy soils and protect water resources.

Learn more about our work for healthy soil

Main image: Better farming practices can reduce runoff that pollutes waters downstream.